Putting Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves on this list is kind of cheating, since there are moments in this movie that definitely count as “horror”. However, the aim of the story isn’t to scare. This is a film about fable, not fear. Based on the eponymous short story by Angela Carter (who wrote the screenplay), the movie uses the story of Little Red Riding Hood to explore the themes of maturation, sexuality, and gender, as well as humanity’s desire to explain and control these facts of life with mythology and fiction. The result is a surreal and gorgeous romance, wrapped in a nightmare.
The Company of Wolves is one of the few movies that is explicitly shown to be a dream, as the film starts with our heroine, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson), fast asleep in bed. We are then transported to a foreboding wood, inexplicably filled with items from Rosaleen’s room that have been enlarged to nightmarish proportions. There we see Rosaleen’s sister is being chased by a pack of hungry wolves, eventually succumbing to them. The next day, at the sister’s funeral, Rosaleen is sent to spend the night with her grandmother (Angela Lansbury), who tells her stories of the dangers of men whose eyebrows meet, and the horrors that awaits those “who stray from the path”. Rosaleen heeds these stories, and begins to even tell some of her own; however, she soon learns how very real they are when she meets a strange woodsman (Micha Bergese) on her way to her grandmother’s house.
This is not a plot-heavy film; in fact, the major conflict of the film doesn’t even appear until the third act. While there are some minor conflicts beforehand (the sister’s death; Rosaleen’s disastrous walk through the woods with an amorous boy) to help build the characters, most of the film is just a frame for granny’s old wives tales. While some viewers may see this as Jordan and Carter trying to pad a weak story with some truly creepy vignettes, they are actually integral to the message of the movie. These stories are not just stories; they help us gain insight to the worldview of the characters that are telling the story. Granny’s stories are all about fear, and punishment, while Rosaleen’s stories focus on empowerment and redemption. When we reach the climax, we realize why the characters make the decisions they do based on the stories they told. Thus, the film is more than a retelling of the Red Riding Hood story; it is an examination of why the story, and storytelling, is so important.
As would be expected in a movie that focuses on parables, this film is filled with symbolism. Some of it is obvious (a flower that turns from white to a deep crimson, childhood toys impede the sister’s escape from the wolves), some of the symbolism is obscure (statuettes of baby Jesus hatches from a bird’s egg), but they all lend visual interest and depth to the film. Most interesting is the use of animals in the film. Of course there are the eponymous wolves, but almost every shot is filled with animals of some sort, from insects, to weasels, to a python. Since some of these animals are not native to the forests of England, it is obvious that they serve a symbolic purpose, but most of these symbols are not clear. Still, even if the symbols don’t make much immediate sense, they help create a dreamlike mood in the film.
No werewolf film review is complete without a discussion about the films special effects, and fortunately, the special effects in this movie rival even the classic werewolf films. Not only are the effects imaginative, they are gruesome as well. A particularly memorable scene is when a man rips off his own skin to become a wolf (this scene scared me so much as a kid, that I had to turn it off and wait until daylight to watch it). Another has a wedding party becoming a group of wolves, and features their wolves’ feet splitting open their shoes, ripping their clothes, and destroying their accoutrements of the upper class. While some of the effects are dated, they still hold up, aided by the superiority of practical effects and excellent camera work. Helping matters is that the werewolves themselves are actual wolves, thus avoiding the film being filled with men walking around in rubber suits.
For those looking for frights, The Company of Wolves is the best bet with the films I’ve reviewed. Still, the film itself is not exactly a horror movie, with the only scary moments appearing sporadically during granny’s stories. But if you’re looking for a movie that explores some interesting themes, while still having some scary moments, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s a shame that this film has been overlooked in Neil Jordan’s oeuvre, especially as it is miles above his other “not-quite-horror-movie”, Interview With a Vampire.
Marshall Oliver Estes 10/24/2011
For More in the Series:
Hardly Horror — An Introduction: Beware, You Are In For No Scares
Hardly Horror Part 1 — The Vampire: Ganja and Hess (1973)
Hardly Horror Part 2 — The Slasher: Baghead (2008)
Hardly Horror Part 4 – The Zombie: Fido (2006)